Missoula County delays recommendation on removal of Elbow Lake dam

The Elbow Lake Dam. Photo taken last July by Brian Browning.

After two lakeside landowners objected, the Missoula County commissioners on Wednesday postponed a request to sign a letter supporting removal of a dam on Elbow Lake until they learn more about the project and its effects.

“This is a big issue for us,” said Greg Browning, a Missoula resident who, along with his brother Brian Browning, has a cabin on Elbow Lake. “We purchased our cabin because it was our lifelong dream to have a place on a lake. If this dam is removed, the lake will become a river, wetlands will be affected, the area will be drastically altered, and it will have impacts on property owners as well as wildlife.” 

Brian Browning said the wetlands created by the dam are some of the “wildest” places he’s ever been, and removal of the dam could impact a lot of wildlife species.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are accepting comments on a draft environmental assessment of the proposed Elbow Lake dam removal, on the Clearwater River south of Seeley Lake.

The project is expected to cost $3,000 to $5,000, which would be covered by FWP and DNRC. 

As stated in the assessment, the goals of the project are to: “Restore the site to its approximate historic natural condition and elevation; alleviate ongoing violations of state and federal regulations on state trust property; restore natural streambed conditions on the river in the vicinity of the dam; eliminate the dam that acts as a partial barrier to the natural movement of fish and recreationists, and reduce the probability of continued violations at the site.”

In a letter dated Sept. 30, 2019, FWP regional supervisor Randy Arnold and DNRC land area manager Mike O’Herron wrote: “The structure (dam) appears to be constructed of local streambed materials, which would be redistributed in the immediate vicinity within the river with an excavator to restore natural stream integrity in this reach. The structure is currently in violation under the state Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act in Missoula County (310 Law administered through the Missoula Conservation District) and the Federal Clean Water Act (404 Permitting Administered by the U.S. Corps of Engineers).

“The site also lacks DNRC authorization including a legal water right (which would allow water impoundment and storage) and a valid land-use license for structures within the low watermarks on a navigable water in Montana.” 

Of particular concern to FWP is protecting and restoring habitat for bull trout, listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Kylie Paul, with Missoula County Community and Planning Services, said the county received a request to send a letter of support for the project.

“The dam was created, and removed, then created and removed, back and forth for quite a few years,” she said. “There are concerns about it blocking fish passage and there being no water rights. So we support removal.” 

Greg Browning said the dam and lake have been there since at least 1910. 

During Wednesday’s county commission meeting, Brian Browning (left) and his brother Greg Browning, who own a cabin on Elbow Lake, expressed their concerns about a proposal to remove the Elbow Lake dam. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

“There are existing dams on the Clearwater River above Elbow Lake and below, so the fish passage issue doesn’t make sense,” he said. “There has been no science to back this up. Other than ‘dam, bad’ and ‘bull trout, good,’ there’s been no studies to look at potential impacts to other wildlife and to landowners.” 

A lot of “ducks, herons, beavers and other species depend on those wetlands,” Greg Browning said.  

“We think the decision has already been made, and everybody’s now jumping on board,” he said. “All we ask is that you not jump on board, that you not sign this letter until we’ve had a complete, honest, more detailed assessment, and then sit down together to reach a compromise and come to a reasonable solution.” 

Several times, Greg and Brian Browning mentioned the other dams and lakes along the Clearwater River. 

“You can’t selectively pick one and ignore the others,” Greg Browning said. “Where will this end? Is there a plan to push all the way up the Clearwater chain of lakes and remove every dam?” 

The commissioners agreed to not sign the letter until they confer with FWP and the DNRC and get answers to some of the questions and concerns brought up by the Browning brothers. 

The state agencies are accepting public comments on the proposal until 5 p.m., Oct. 29. To see the draft environmental assessment, click here: http://fwp.mt.gov/news/publicNotices/environmentalAssessments/restorationAndRehab/pn_0174.html

Reporter Dave Stalling can be reached at: dstalling@missoulacurrent.com